Share This Article

A witness to the carnage of a Crimean War battle founds the Red Cross.

Sometime during the sweltering day of June 24, 1859, Jean Henri Dunant inadvertently stumbled into the crevasse of horror created by one of the great battles of the Second Italian War of Independence. Early that morning, two titanic armies—one French and Sardinian, the other Austrian—had blundered into each other in Lombardy, and through that long day 300,000 men fought for their monarchs and their lives. The Battle of Solferino, named for the Italian village where the fighting was particularly raw and unremitting, was a soldier’s battle—man to man, bayonet to bayonet.

At day’s end 6,000 bodies lay scattered across fields and thickets; 30,000 wounded were crying out in pain, thirst, and despair. Franz Josef and his Austrian forces were in retreat from their northern Italian territories, the emperor’s waning empire further weakened. The Franco-Sardinian allies, fighting for Italian unification, had seized the day. A triumphant Louis Napoleon, who had personally commanded the French troops, promising he would free Italy “from the Alps to the Adriatic,” telegraphed his empress: “Great battle! Great victory!”

Dunant, a pious 31-year-old Swiss businessman, saw little glorious in the allied victory at Solferino, even though he had come to the village expressly to meet Napoleon and urge him to pursue French glory. He hoped to present the emperor with a visionary book he had written, The Empire of Charlemagne Restored. If its recommendations were followed, Dunant’s own fortunes, threatened by his speculative business ventures in North Africa, might also be restored. But Dunant’s mission was derailed by what he saw at Solferino.

“What terrible episodes! What touching scenes! What disillusionments!” he later wrote. “There are battalions without food, companies lacking almost every necessity, because of the loss of the knapsacks. Water also is lacking, but their thirst is so intense that officers and soldiers resort to slimy and even bloody pools. Everywhere the wounded are begging for water. Through the silence of the night are heard groans, stifled cries of anguish and pain, and heartrending voices calling for help.”

Deeply affected, Dunant was determined to answer that call in any way he could, and within four short years he had founded what has become one of the biggest war and disaster relief agencies in the world, the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Raised in Geneva, Dunant asserted that even as a child he “experienced a keen compassion for the unhappy, the humble, the weak and the oppressed.” An ardent Calvinist, he believed in activism and tolerance. He had visited prisons, joined the League of Alms to help those in need, and worked tirelessly to promote another fledgling organization—the Young Men’s Christian Union (later, the YMCA)—pushing to expand it internationally. In 1855, at Dunant’s urging, it held its first world conference.

Now, in Solferino, Dunant was faced with human need and suffering of a magnitude he could not have imagined. “With faces black with the flies that swarmed around their wounds, men gazed around them, wild-eyed and helpless,” Dunant wrote. “Others were no more than a worm-ridden, inextricable compound of coal and shirt and flesh and blood.”

After ministering to the wounded, he moved on to Castiglione, a nearby town where the carnage was equally awful. Dunant organized local women to provide food, drink, sponge baths, and bandages to 500 men crammed into a local church. Neighborhood boys fetched water from nearby springs and carried it in buckets, pitchers, and jars. He described some of his “improvised nurses” as “good-hearted old women,” others as “charming young girls.”

“Their gentleness, goodness, compassion, and their attentive care restores a little courage to the wounded,” he said. Like him, the women worked free of bias—friend or foe, the wounded were treated the same. At one point Dunant sent his coachman to purchase medical supplies, tobacco, chamomile—even the ingredients to make lemonade.

To the men who lay dying on the blood-spattered straw covering the floor of that makeshift hospital, Dunant— plump, young, healthy, and always dressed in a white suit—must have seemed almost an apparition. He later learned that they called him “the man in white.” As he tended them, some grabbed his hand and begged, “Do not leave me to die,” or they entreated him to write their mothers a last letter.

“The feeling that one has of his own insufficiency in such solemn circumstances is an inexpressible suffering,” Dunant wrote in Un Souvenir de Solferino, a small book he self-published three years later. “It is extremely painful to feel that you cannot help all those who lie before you.”

What Dunant had seen in Lombardy haunted him, and he described it unflinchingly. He was determined to alleviate the suffering of the wounded in future battles, and that, he wrote in his Souvenir, was “the purpose for which this book has been written.” In its final pages he laid out a vision for an aid society with trained volunteer nurses and organized relief efforts: “Cannot men… meet to solve a problem as important as that of caring for the victims of war?”

Europeans, from writers to royalty, devoured Dunant’s book, and in the following few years it became the cri de coeur in a humanitarian crusade he spearheaded. His ideas for a relief society mirrored the century’s zeitgeist. For decades the clamor had been growing for better conditions for workers, critical sanitary reforms, and a general softening of class discrimination. Dunant’s book added to the chorus.

In 1863, a year after the book was published, Dunant and four other Geneva men formed the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. Its emblem, a red cross on a white background—the reverse of the Swiss flag— inspired a new, much more potent name: the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Within a year, the group had organized the seminal Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Within three years, more than 20 countries, including the sprawling Ottoman Empire, had ratified the convention’s treaty.

By then, though, Dunant’s life was a shambles. He had enmeshed himself in risky financial schemes trying to recoup business losses. In desperation, he again looked to Louis Napoleon, this time directly requesting support for his personal ventures in North Africa. A letter from Napoleon to a friend and champion of Dunant had an ironic twist. Though Dunant had helped build two history-changing international organizations, the Red Cross and the YMCA, Napoleon wrote that Dunant’s business ideas were not “clear or precise.”

“It is not enough,” the emperor chastised, “to build castles in Spain….He must be clear about what he wants.”

Napoleon declined to intervene, and in 1868 Dunant left Geneva, his relations with the Red Cross committee strained, his finances near collapse. He never returned to his hometown. In the next decades he wandered Europe in penury, finally settling in the spa village of Heiden, Switzerland. By 1892, he was living in the hospital room he would occupy for the last 18 years of his life. He was frequently depressed and embittered about the events of his past, particularly the way his role in the founding of the Red Cross had been marginalized by others in the organization.

Then, in 1895, Dunant was rediscovered when an article on “the hermit of Heiden” appeared in a Swiss newspaper. As word spread of his reduced circumstances, Dunant was flooded with affectionate letters, praise, prizes, and financial help. Again he was the toast of Europe; he was visited by royalty and reinstated, at least in the public mind, as the visionary behind the Red Cross. (His fractured relations with the International Committee of the Red Cross did not mend in his lifetime.)

In 1901 the first Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded went jointly to Jean Henri Dunant and the peace activist Frédéric Passy, but Dunant was too ill to attend the ceremonies in Stockholm. In 1910 “the man in white,” who had ministered to the wounded in Solferino and made of their agony a cause célèbre, died at 82 in his hospital room in Heiden. His last words—“How dark it is!”—were prescient. Within a few years the world was at war.


Karen M. Kostyal, formerly a senior editor for National Geographic’s books and magazine, writes frequently about history.

Originally published in the Autumn 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.